James White

James White, statesman, military figure, and philanthropist, was born in 1747 in Rowan County, North Carolina. He married Mary Lawson in 1770, and the Whites had seven children; their oldest son, Hugh Lawson White, achieved national prominence as a presidential candidate in 1836.

In 1783 North Carolina passed what came to be known as the “Land Grab Act” and opened a major portion of East Tennessee for settlement. During the next decade, White purchased over four thousand acres in what is now Knox County. In 1786 he built a fort and five years later laid out a town in what eventually became Knoxville. White donated land for a town common and a Presbyterian church and cemetery. For a nominal fee, he sold land to establish Knoxville’s first institution of higher learning, Blount College, which later became the University of Tennessee.

White’s public service included election to the legislatures of the State of Franklin and North Carolina. He represented North Carolina at its convention to ratify the Constitution of the United States and was also a representative to the Tennessee Constitutional Convention in 1796. Elected to the Senate in the First General Assembly of Tennessee, he became the Speaker of that body in 1797. White resigned his seat in favor of the popular William Blount after the latter left the U.S. Senate under a cloud of scandal; he returned to the state Senate after Blount’s death in 1800. His appointments included justice of the peace and Indian commissioner of Tennessee, and he was a member of the Board of Trustees of Blount College.

White’s military career began in 1779, when he served for two years as a captain in the North Carolina militia. He was commander of the “Immortal 38” in the defense of Knoxville in 1793 against an estimated one thousand Cherokee and Creek warriors. White served as a brigadier general with Andrew Jackson during the Creek War of 1813 and 1814. The Cherokees considered White a man of honor; on at least two occasions he tactfully interceded on their behalf and prevented reprisals by hot-headed settlers.

James White died on August 14, 1821, at his farm on the outskirts of Knoxville. In 1982 University of Tennessee archaeologists excavated the farm site. White and his wife, Mary, are buried in the cemetery of the First Presbyterian Church in downtown Knoxville.

Suggested Reading

Walter T. Durham, Before Tennessee: The Southwest Territory, 1790-1796 (1990)

Citation Information

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  • Article Title James White
  • Author
  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
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  • Access Date April 24, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018